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Maggie Betts: Novitiate Filmmaker

The breakthrough Writer/Director on her Sundance acclaimed debut feature Novitiate, working with a virtually exclusive female cast/crew and her optimism for the future of female filmmakers.
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Soulcalibur VI

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In some ways, Soulcalibur is the red-headed stepchild of the fighting game oeuvre. Not as technical and respected as the Tekken series, nor as instantly accessible as the Street Fighter franchise, it occupies a strange middle ground and has never been given the kudos that is so overdue. Happily, with Soulcalibur VI, the underrated franchise has its best chance at garnering mainstream attention, boasting a generous offering that is easy to pick up but satisfyingly deep to master.

Soulcalibur VI, like everything in 2018, is sort of a reboot, boiling down the various disparate plot threads from previous games, and plonking them down in one cohesive narrative set in the 16th Century. To be brutally frank, the story is serviceable at best, but it’s also quite clearly not the point. Ultimately both “Libra of Soul” and “Soul Chronicle” (aka: the story) modes want to get you into as many varied fights as possible, utilising various weapons and characters. Libra is the real star here, as you can create your own unique fighter and have them enter the game’s world, even levelling up and improving weapons – in an RPG-lite type of experience. Soul Chronicle offers a similar caper but using characters that already exist in the game, it’s similarly varied and offers action aplenty. These modes are legitimately impressive, and really give a sense of depth and lore (even if you end up skipping past some of the denser walls of exposition on screen).

Of course, a decent story offering would be for nothing if the game didn’t feel right, and yet again Soulcalibur delivers the goods. The combat, unlike most fighting games, is weapons-based and uses a combination of normal hits, hard hits, kicks and blocks. Once you start combining these simple elements – and take advantage of Soul Edge and Reversal Edge attacks – the variety is dizzying, but never so obtuse that it gets in the way of fun. Because, ultimately, that’s what a fighting game should be: a kicky-punchy (or hacky-slashy) good time. Soulcalibur VI delivers this and more, a gorgeously-animated, fast-paced flurry of spectacular moves and interesting modes. Feel like the lord of all creation as you tear through Libra of Soul and Arcade mode. Come falling back down to earth as you get your arse utterly spanked by a 13-year-old kid from Japan in the online component.

Soulcalibur is a great fighting game franchise, and Soulcalibur VI is, quite simply, a great fighting game. Take a chance on this unjustly overlooked combat caper and forge a violent path in this eternally retold tale.

 
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Mega Man 11

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The original Mega Man was the first game to almost break us. The year was 1988 (or thereabouts) and your heroic writer was a burgeoning nerd in an era when such people were generally called “unco” and were punched a great deal. Mega Man was the latest game we played on our beloved Nintendo Entertainment System, a deceptively simple platformer starring a robot boy with a shooty arm. As MM you’d make your way through various levels, all with specific themes (fire, scissors, bombs etc.), and fight a boss that was the culmination of said theme. Once you beat the boss you’d flog their power and move onto the next one. It sounds pretty simple in retrospect but at the time that was a staggeringly clever gameplay mechanic. One boss was giving us the roaring shits, however, as time after time we tried and failed to beat them. Eventually we called the helpline on the back of one of the many Nintendo magazines and they told us whose powers us should use to beat the boss. It was a profound relief and a glorious triumph once implemented.

Thirty years later, with three decades of challenging game experience rattling around inside our bonce, we figured the latest iteration of the game, Mega Man 11, would be a negligible challenge. We’ve played through the Dark Souls trilogy, survived Alien: Isolation and platinumed Bloodborne. This would be a piece of piss, right?

Friends, it was not a piece of piss.

Mega Man 11 basically has the same plot as the rest of them. Ubiquitous antagonist Dr. Wily is back with a bunch of brainwashed robots and it’s up to you, blue, to kick their arses and steal their toys and eventually face Wily himself. This time you’ll have the advantage of the Double Gear system that briefly allows you to slow time, boost your damage or use both at once, although you need to be careful not to overload the fiddly tech. The title offers that classic Mega Man-style gaming. Themed levels, loads of secrets, clever bosses and platforming that will on occasion make you want to primal scream at the moon, begging for an end to the horror. See, Mega Man 11 is challenging. To the point where we found ourself notching the difficulty down to [weary sigh] Casual. And hell, even then we didn’t exactly fly through the levels! We try to tell ourselves it’s because we haven’t played an MM game for years, but part of us knows it’s likely that our old man reflexes aren’t what they used to be.

The thing is, Mega Man 11 – despite or perhaps because of the learning curve – is an enormous amount of fun. It’s bright, it’s colourful, the weapons are cool and the feeling of satisfaction you get when besting a beastly boss is as satisfying now as it was way back in 1988. If you don’t like platformers, or prefer your games more forgiving, then you should probably look elsewhere but if old school gameplay with new school presentation is your thing, Mega Man 11 will have you doing the robot.

 
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Friday the 13th: Ultimate Slasher Edition

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When we first reviewed Friday the 13th: The Game back in 2017 we enjoyed a lot of things about it, but we certainly had issues. Poor online connectivity, bugs galore and no single player content to speak of hampered a wonderful premise and a horror fan’s dream come true. Well, in the later months of 2018, Friday the 13th: Ultimate Slasher Edition is here to hack and slash with renewed vigour, so how’s it go? Pretty good, with a few qualifications.

Friday the 13th: The Game is officially a hit. A hugely passionate online community and strong sales have really helped the title be all it can be. That means these days you can expect to experience better online performance (although still not perfect), a more balanced game and fewer bugs. That’s all well and good but what about the single player content fans have been clamouring for? Happily, you can now play Friday the 13th offline, wherein you take on the role of Jason Voorhees and butcher a bunch of horny teenagers – as is tradition. What’s wonderful about this mode is the ability to customise the look of your Jason and the counsellors, pick your favourite location and then use specific kills from the movies. Basically, you can unleash your inner Tom Savini and splatter those dang kids in suitably graphic and gruesome ways. Upload the results to Youtube and drink in the adoration of your fans, because here’s the somewhat sad news: Friday the 13th – both the game and movie series – are on hold at the moment because of a lengthy legal battle regarding ownership rights of the property.

That means no new movies, and no new DLC for the game. Hell, some of the advertised kills and modes for the game have been put on hold – with no obvious outcome in sight at time of writing. While this is certainly a bummer, it’s good to remember that the game as is ain’t exactly a slouch. A strong multiplayer mode, frequently hilarious single player slash-a-thon and, with the Ultimate Slasher edition, all of the emotes and outfits for your counsellors add up to a decent offering here.

For those who have been playing since day one, Friday the 13th: Ultimate Slasher Edition is probably not a must buy. However, if you’ve yet to experience the gleeful, albeit occasionally slightly shonky, thrills contained within, this is by far the best version of the experience. And if you can rope in a group of horror-loving mates to help you enact your Friday franchise fantasies? Then you’re in for a hell of a gory good time.

Do it, armchair Jasons, do it for mother!

 
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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey follows on from 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins, a game that represented Ubisoft’s attempt to get the long running series back on track after a grim few entries. Origins was good. Not breathtakingly amazing, mind you, but a solid course correction for a franchise in dire need of some fresh concepts. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Odyssey improves on Origins in most aspects, although there are still a number of issues that need ironing out.

First, let’s talk about the story because unlike many recent AC entries, it’s a pretty good one! You, the player, step into the shapely sandals of either Alexios or Kassandra in ancient Greece, in the year 431 BC. It’s kind of weird that the game takes place four hundred years before the entry titled Origins but at this stage of the game, the series has so much narrative baggage it’s a relief to enter a relatively uncluttered timeline.

The game has you trying to restore your family by tracking down the surviving members. What you do when you find them is up to you, to an extent, because Odyssey has added branching narrative elements, similar to those in the Mass Effect series or Telltale Games titles.

This is a smart move and makes the dialogue sections much more intriguing. In fact, the cutscenes in general are a series best, featuring excellent facial animation and voice acting. The world of Ancient Greece is similarly honed to perfection, offering a staggeringly enormous canvas upon which you can paint your story. Want to become a bad arse warrior who takes no shit? You can. Rather play it sneaky and stealthy? That’s an option too. The skill trees in Odyssey are much more meaningful, offering genuinely different skills for enormously different play styles.

Okay, that’s the good news. Now let’s delve into what doesn’t work.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is massive; like, legitimately enormous, which is fine. But it’s also very repetitive. Particularly after about ten hours or so when for some reason the XP is throttled and the game basically insists you take part in Every-Single-Tedious-Fetch-Quest-Offered. Oh sure, you don’t have to do them all, but if you choose not to you’ll be woefully underleveled for basically every main story mission on offer. This happened to an extent in Origins but it feels even more egregious here.

To make matters worse, the online store offers a permanent XP boost for money, basically enforcing the idea that the game is chockers with bullshit busy work that you’d rather skip and they want you to pay for the privilege. Honestly, this is the kind of shonky crap that was meant to be in Ubisoft’s past and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Now for some people, the kind of gamers who want to do every single side quest, it’s likely not a problem. But it’s a bit cheeky to claim the game can be “played your way” and then drip feed XP in a slow, grindy trickle.

Other negatives include floaty combat, frequent (though not game breaking) bugs and a general lack of mission variety. Still and all, the game looks stunning and when it’s not pissfarting about with the sort of nonsense described above it can be almost sublime.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey offers a decent story, great voice acting, improved (though imperfect) combat and meaningful, upgradable skills in a title that provides an expansive, entertaining adventure that will appeal to series vets and newcomers alike – although not without some reservations.

 
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Valkyria Chronicles 4

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In 2008, The Valkyria Chronicles was released to much acclaim and some confusion. A bizarre mix of military turn-based tactics, strategy and anime-style storytelling all wrapped up in a sketchy watercoloured aesthetic, there truly was nothing like this out there. Even people who wouldn’t play a strategy game on a dare couldn’t help but be charmed by this curious offering. Sequels were released, mainly on the PSP and mobile platforms, and a console spin-off Valkyria Revolution, hit market but none of these games could touch the singular charm of the original. Ten years later and it looks like they’re going to have another bash with The Valkyria Chronicles 4, but can lightning be caught in a bottle a second time? Kinda yeah.

The events of Valkyria Chronicles 4 occur in the same timeline as the original, however the story is told from the perspective of new characters. This is a wise move as trying to follow the byzantine competing narrative threads would be an exercise in confusion. Set on Europa, where the second Europan war is being fought, you take control of a squad of youngsters with silly hair and funny voices. The character designs are, like the predecessors, total anime nonsense. That’s part of the charm, really, but if you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing you should know that going in. If you can get past the rather goofy aesthetic, however, there is a surprising amount of story depth with solid journeys for all of the characters and even a couple of genuine emotion moments.

Gameplay-wise things are pretty much unchanged from the original. You move your troops into position, fight the enemy, move forwards and do it all again, experiencing cutscenes and story beats along the way. The mixture of exploration and real time strategy remains an intriguing one, although the mechanics aren’t quite as fresh a decade later. Graphics and animation are also fine, but not exactly spectacular. Still, that’s not really the purpose of Valkyria Chronicles 4. This almost feels like a more modern reboot of the original and for those of you who are fans of that oddball title – this is a pleasing and engaging tank ride down memory lane.

 
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Shadow of the Tomb Raider

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In 2013 when Crystal Dynamics decided to reboot the Tomb Raider franchise it couldn’t have come at a better time. Lara Croft was a beloved character in theory, but her most recent adventures at that point were lacking. The concept of seeing Lara before she was a gun-toting bad arse was a solid one, and the game remains an exciting, quite brutal, adventure experience.

2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider seemed to pitch itself as “what if Tomb Raider… but more?” The title was technically very slick, full of exciting set pieces and brimming with side content, but something was missing. Or rather, the lack of innovation in anything but technical specs was clear. Put simply: the graphics were gorgeous but the gameplay was more of the same.

2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider is closing out the prequel trilogy and, for good and ill, it continues Rise’s tradition of piling on more stuff without adding much in the way of innovation.

Now, for the record: if you’re really into this Nu-Tomb Raider trilogy you’ll have an absolute blast with the game. The jungle setting, Lara’s new ability to smear herself with mud and the apocalyptic plot are all rock solid, if surface-level, additions to the franchise. This is more of what you love, if you love it.

Those on the fence about these games, however, will find little that hasn’t been explored in the other two titles. The graphics are slick, the animation gorgeous, the voice acting stellar and the level design clever and intricate… and yet it really is business as usual. You’ll never be particularly surprised in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and other than a couple of plot points towards the end there’s little that feels destined to be memorable as, say, the hideous body pit in Tomb Raider.

In cinematic terms, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a solid, but unexceptional entry in a long running franchise. It’s Mission: Impossible III rather than Ghost Protocol. Or Tomorrow Never Dies instead of Casino Royale. In short: Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an engaging action adventure with one of video game’s most iconic characters, but sadly bereft of the innovation and surprise that would raise it to ‘classic’ status.

 
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Marvel’s Spider-Man

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There was a time not all that long ago when superhero video games were as ubiquitous as superhero films are now. It wouldn’t be unusual to have a dozen cape-happy titles released each year, including X-Men, Spider-Man, The Punisher and Hulk tie-ins. Some of these titles were fantastic, many of them were crap, but they flowed out into the sweaty paws of gamers in a near-constant stream. Somewhere along the way this stopped, possibly around the time Marvel Studios got their shit together and began (Avengers) assembling their cinematic universe, and the situation reversed. Now we have a jaw-dropping number of superhero movies, many of them excellent, but video games have been on the decline.

Marvel’s Spider-Man from Insomniac Games is here to try and buck that trend, bringing everyone’s favourite web-slinger into the homes of PS4 owners.

Spider-Man gives us a more seasoned Spidey than the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming movie. The game’s Peter Parker is older, a little wiser, and has decked a few supervillains in his time. This is a good decision from a gaming perspective because it means there are more baddies to draw upon when the time is right, plus the introduction of Mister Negative – the major villain of this title.

Practically you’ll be swinging around a semi-open world New York city, completing main missions, side quests and fun little weird activities like catching pigeons and stopping street crime. Starting with a negative it needs to be said that there is little innovation in the open world space here. Collecting stuff, chasing icons, punching groups of thugs – it’s very much business as usual in a Batman: Arkham City meets Infamous kinda way. That being said, Spider-Man absolutely nails the movement mechanic and is easily the best web-slinging simulator since Spider-Man 2 back in 2004.

Honestly, it’s hard to overstate how good web-slinging feels. The sheer rush of gravity as you plummet past buildings, the giddy joy as you swing upwards, scraping the tops of cabs and pedestrians, yorping in primal glee. It never gets old. The combat, also, is fast and snappy, featuring upgradable skills and movesets that are fantastic at keeping the fights fresh and fun. The addition of numerous outfits with modular skills and supers frequently leads to clever approaches to the old kicky punchy, and it just feels right. And the story, while not exactly spectacular, is certainly engaging, although it suffers from odd pacing and a couple of not-terribly-interesting perspective shifts.

Ultimately your enjoyment of Spider-Man will come from your ability to look past the game’s mild shortcomings of imagination. If you don’t feel burnt out on Arkham-style gameplay, if you can still thrill to chasing icons around an open world, then you’re likely to have a grand old time, albeit one that falls slightly short of being amazing. And hey, if you’re a PS4 owner who is even casually interested in being a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, well, you know what to do.

 
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Strange Brigade

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Back before it became a seething hellscape of capering reality TV stars and xenophobic Brexit voters, Britain used to rule the world. Quite literally, actually, they had a whole empire thing going on. This gleeful colonisation was glorious for them, although not so ideal for the rest of the world. That era of ‘stiff upper lip’ no-nonsense plummy invasion is the thematic premise for Strange Brigade, a four-player co-op shooter from those barmy chaps over at Rebellion Developments.

Set in 1930, right smack bang in the middle of the era described above, archeologist Edgar Harbin uncovers the dusty tomb of Seteki, a terrifying African Queen renowned for her cruelty. Naturally digging around in the tombs of evildoers is always a bad idea and sure enough, Seteki’s spirit rises up – bringing with her an army of the undead. Who can stop this terrible turmoil from beyond the grave? Could it be you, dear reader, do you have what it takes?

The titular Strange Brigade are a group of Secret Service agents with various appealing personalities and different skills that can be tweaked along the way. Ultimately, however, you’ll be shooting. A lot. Hordes of zombies, wraiths, monsters, insects and all manner of bosses swarm towards your team and must be dispatched tout-bloody-suite. You can aid the wanton destruction by incorporating traps and supers into the mix, plus some light puzzle solving will unlock enhancements for your weapon, but this is a group shooter through and through. Happily, Rebellion – creators of the Sniper Elite series – are no strangers to shooters. The gunplay is snappy and responsive, with headshots feeling satisfying and movements well tuned. Playing alone is possible but the general sense of repetition may hamper long term enjoyment. If you can find a group of three others, however, the game truly shines, offering an agreeable mix of horde mode with traps and bosses to spice things up.

Strange Brigade is charming, featuring a tongue-in-cheek narrator and a sense of style. This charm doesn’t quite disguise the fairly simplistic nature of the gameplay loop, but it gives the title a sense of identity in a crowded market. By yourself Strange Brigade is just okay, but if you can rope in some chums, by crikey you’ll be blasting ambulatory corpses and laughing with glee until the sun finally sets on the grand old British Empire. Pip pip! Cheerio.